A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Chair Emeritus: Wendell Berry


I couldn’t let the month go by without saying something about Wendell Berry, who turned 78 on August 5th. When I first got the idea to do my graduating lecture on poets with double lives, my adviser suggested that I ask around for recommendations of poets who have non-literary careers. Wendell Berry was the first name mentioned. And although he never responded to my kind letter asking him for an interview, I have the utmost respect for this farmer-activist-teacher-poet-essayist-novelist with over 40 works in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Wendell Berry is truly his own man, living in Port Royal, Kentucky on land his family has farmed since the early 1800s. Berry is well-known for poems and stories featuring the Kentucky landscape as well as for shunning the Internet and email. His essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” is as much a protest against computers as it is a reminder that technology should make our lives better and not “replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.” Even in his late 70s, Wendell Berry has been engaged in civil disobedience for causes important to him. He’s an old-school poet––not because he’s still writing long hand––but because he stands up for what he believes in and asks us to do the same:

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

~from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Chair Emeritus is a monthly feature highlighting famous poets who have or are living the double life.


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Finding a Home for Your Poems


A good friend once told me, “Dating is all about getting the at-bats.” The same can be said about publishing poems. Part of my struggle is the time it takes to sift through my VCFA manuscript and the poems I’ve written since graduating in January to figure out which poems I still feel good about sending, which ones still needs revision, and which ones make me shake my head (What was I thinking when I wrote that?!).

Last month, I posted about my first time sending out publications, and now, I am gearing up for a second round. My pool of poems is limited by the submissions that are pending and whether the lit mag accepts simultaneous submission. So far, I’ve heard news only about 2 out of the 5 submission – a “nice rejection” (try again) and an acceptance 1 out of the 3 poems I sent (yay!)

This time, I’m using these sites to identify literary magazines:

  • Duotrope – has a submissions manager to help track the results of your submissions, lists new, defunct, and resurrected literary magazines, and allows writers to search for a good match
  • New Pages – maintains the “Big List of Literary Magazines” with reviews of each publication as well as links to their websites

Browsing through each site is a bit overwhelming, but I find comfort in knowing there are so many possibilities out there. It gives me hope that each poem will find the right home. Now if only dating worked the same way. ;)


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Poetry Prompt Poem


As promised I’m posting the poem I wrote to the Monday Poetry Prompt. Here’s the picture:

Lordsburg, New Mexico © Mitch Dobrowner 2011

And here’s the poem:

Clouds have learned to funnel

their way to the ground, spin

themselves into black thickness,

and swallow whole lives

and trees below—like an all-natural

atom bomb spreading destruction

from the top down.


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Poetry Prompts


Last week was one of those weeks when my writing rhythm was thrown off by travel and late nights in Raleigh for work and poetrySpark.  When I can’t think of anything to write or haven’t written in a while, prompts are a way to jumpstart the creative juices.  Luckily, one of my responsibilities for Living Poetry is sending out the weekly poetry prompt. Every Monday on the ride into work, I have to figure out what the prompt is going to be—which means focusing my energies on thinking about what topic might possibly inspire me to write.  Here are a few of the prompts I’ve used so far:

skin * breath * night *  fireworks * the smell of mint

Recently, I started using a visual prompt on the 3rd Monday of the month. Last month, a photo in the UCLA Magazine inspired this poem:

Carbon Footprint

From the “Vegan Campus” article in UCLA Magazine: http://magazine.ucla.edu/features/the-vegan-campus/index1.html

I want to leave
something behind,
more than this poem,
this page, this pen,
a lineage beyond
what my fruitless
loins choose to bear.
In time, the mind purges
any memory too heavy
to carry. The soul
must be free to take
the next step without
a trace of regret.

Today, I sent out a photo from National Geographic. I’ll post the poem I come up with next week.


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City-Inspired Poetry


As a double-life poet, you have to find ways to keep yourself creatively inspired. It is so easy to let work and the rest of your life crowd the poetry out. Last week, I traveled to Chicago for a non-literary conference.  Although two of my work colleagues were there, we attended different sessions and kept our own company afterward. My first day in the city, I took an architectural boat tour with one colleague and her daughter. Afterwards, I found a place to eat outside. I was dutifully chceking Facebook when I heard this shuffling sound. I looked up to see the guard and watched as he made his way around the block. I didn’t think to take a picture, but I did manage to jot down this poem:

The sound of the shuffle precedes
His overhang belly with shirt
buttons stressed, but holding
his uniform blue in tact as the slow
waddle of his patrol rounds
the corner of Michigan Ave.

My time at the Adler Planetarium  also stuck with me. I’ve always been fascinated by the ideas of galaxies and universes far beyond this one. And I’m sure reading Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars re-ignited my interest in the planets and stars. After watching the planetarium show, The Searcher, I stuck around to ask the guy behind the booth about supernova. His explanation and the exhibit on the topic provided the details needed for this poem:

You were a red giant star
eons beyond your white-yellow hot,
destined to expand into oblivion.
I refused to let you go, kept orbiting
around you, drawing your energy
to fill myself like a helium
balloon—tethered to the whim
of your finger—swirling past
my limit to our beautiful
demise, this spectacular disaster.

And finally the explanation of dark matter next to the supernova display led me to this poem:

A Different Kind of Matter Altogether
Dark matter doesn’t
interact with light.
It is too dominate,
too heavy, too much.
This is Universal Law–
the lesson I  forgot
to learn because
I was too busy
trying to be
like everyone else.


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Poet in the City: Chicago


It’s been one of those weeks again! From Sunday to Thursday, I attended a professional conference on the non-literary side with over 3,000 attendees from every state and a few international observers. I arrived in Chicago on Sunday and took tons of pictures on the architectural boat tour, but didn’t feel comfortable downloading the images on my work laptop until now. (I like to keep the careers separate. It’s the Wallace Stevens in me). After the tour, I took myself out to dinner at P.J. Clarke’s while I waited for the 8:20 showing of Beasts of the Southern Wild. (Believe me, the cucumber martini looked as good as it tasted, and the potpie wasn’t bad either). Wednesday was the only other day I had time to see the city. I walked from McCormick Place to the Adler Planetarium along the Lake Shore trail. Two miles and 40 minutes later, I was happy to sit in a cool, dark room and veg out in front of the stars. Chicago is such an inspiring place.  No wonder Carl Sandburg wrote a whole poem about it!  In my next post, I’ll share a few of my own city-inspired poems.

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Finding Poetry


This double-life poet worked overtime on both fronts this week. The poet staked out old and new writing spaces, made five poetry submissions for her boot camp obligation, and went to the poetrySpark planning meeting on Tuesday.  The data guru was busy in meetings for five projects, reviewing project notes and report drafts, and designing interview protocols. The poet thought about going to an open mic on Thursday, but decided to stay home so the data guru could pack for a conference in Chicago. Neither one of us had much down time to think or process what was seen, heard, or experienced, let alone make a dent in the summer reading list.

It’s easy to lose touch with creativity, especially when the business of poetry is what is keeping you uninspired.  When I first got the idea for this blog post, I was riding on the DRX bus, typing on my iPhone when I could have been reading on the Kindle or writing in the  journal I take everywhere. But in between the search for words on the page, I looked up and found little bits of poetry sprinkled here and there:

Emergency Exit

Exits are identified by red
Handles on the side of windows.
Locate your nearest exit.

This sign is posted on the back of every seat. I’ve read it a thousand times, and each time, the line break between ‘red’ and ‘handles’ still amazes me. I know the decision to break the line there was based solely on the available space on this 3×3 inch placard, but it is a stroke of genius!  Then there’s the haiku-like quality of this sign:

 Turn Then Push Knob to Exit

Girar
Y después
Oprimar
La perilla
Para abrir

Although this sign poem is in Spanish, the rhythm, the alliteration in the ‘p’ sound, and the assonance in the ‘ri’ diphthong are unmistakable. I have to look up to see the sign, which I often forget to do. Usually, I’m too wrapped up in thoughts or a book to see the poetry around me. But I always enjoy it when I do.

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